Progress Energy today proposed shutting down 11 coal-burning power plants in the state, a move that signals the beginning of the end of the dirty coal era that has defined the state's electricity production for decades.
The Raleigh-based electric utility is moving to shutter older coal-burning plants as it becomes increasingly expensive to retrofit aging facilities to trap pollution. Additionally, power companies across the country are anticipating stringent greenhouse gas restrictions to be imposed soon by Congress that will have the effect of penalizing coal-dependent utilities like Progress.
More than half the state's electricity is produced by coal, an abundant domestic source of energy that's lost favor because it emits carbon dioxide, believed to be a major contributor to global warming. The United States has more than 200 years of coal reserves, but in recent years dozens of power companies have scrapped plans to build new coal power plants in the environmental backlash against global warming.
Progress expects to shut down the 11 coal-burning plants by 2017. It plans to replace some of the coal plants with plants powered by natural gas, a cleaner-burning fossil fuel that emits less than half the greenhouse gases produced by coal. Natural gas eliminates most other pollutants, including the neurotoxin mercury as well as ozone-forming emissions.
The 11 plants account for about 12.5 percent of the electricity Progress generates. The oldest coal plant proposed for closure was built in 1949, near Lumberton. Most were built in the 1950s. They lack the costly sulphur-dioxide-trapping "scrubber" technology that would cost more than $1 billion to install.
To meet state pollution limits, Progress has already installed scrubbers on its newer coal plants at a cost of about $2 billion. Those plants, in Person County and Buncombe County, will remain in service.
In addition to the W.H. Weatherspoon plant near Lumberton, the older plants to be shut down include the Cape Fear Plant in Moncure in Chatham County, as well as the Sutton plant near Wilmington. The list of 11 also includes three units at the Lee plant near Goldsboro -- the company's first coal plant selected for retirement last August.